Undertakers sketch

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The Undertakers sketch (written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese) is a comedy sketch from the 26th episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, entitled "Royal Episode 13". It was the final sketch of the thirteenth and final episode of the second season, and was perhaps the most notorious of the Python team's television sketches.

Plot[edit]

The sketch begins when a quietly spoken man (Cleese) takes his dead mother to an undertakers' office. The tactless undertaker (Chapman) suggests they can "burn 'er, bury 'er, or dump 'er in the Thames", but rules out the latter after Cleese confirms that he liked his mother. Of the other two, the undertaker says both are "nasty," and describes the sordid details. When the son shows the undertaker his mother's body, which is in a sack, he sees that the dead woman "looks quite young". He tells his assistant, Fred (Eric Idle) that he thinks they've "got an eater." The grieving son is shocked by the idea of eating his mother's corpse, but eventually succumbs to "feeling a bit peckish". He still feels uneasy, but when the undertaker suggests digging a grave for him to throw up into (in case he feels "a bit guilty afterwards"), he agrees.

Production[edit]

The BBC were wary of the sketch, and reluctantly agreed to let it go ahead on the condition that the studio audience were heard to protest loudly, then invade the set at the sketch's conclusion. This was poorly executed: the audience began booing and shouting too early (those who weren't heckling were laughing), and because of studio fire regulations, only a limited section of the crowd were allowed to rush onto the studio floor; the rest simply sat there looking awkward. (As Roger Wilmut pointed out in the book From Fringe To Flying Circus, a genuinely shocked audience would have reacted with an embarrassed silence.)

Following its initial broadcast of the sketch in 1970, the BBC wiped the sketch from the master tape and replaced it with the "Spot the Braincell" sketch from episode 7 of the second series ("The Attila the Hun Show"). However, when the second series was released on BBC Video in 1985, episode 13 was "restored", thanks to the discovery of a (low quality) copy of the sketch that appears to be sourced from an off-air recording or a foreign (probably American) duplicate of the original show. This restored episode was finally shown again on television in the late 1980s as part of a complete (if frequently interrupted) run of second and third series repeats.

Context[edit]

The sketch was part of a longer running joke within the episode, which was that they expected Queen Elizabeth II to watch the show at some point. Having had interjections throughout the show ("She's switched to ITV!"), the final scene, after the desultory audience invasion, has the entire studio coming to a halt and standing at attention while the music to God Save the Queen is played, and the end credits roll.

To juxtapose the joke that the Queen would be watching, the episode also deliberately featured many of Monty Python's most tasteless sketches. This sketch, the last in both the episode and the second series, immediately followed the "Lifeboat sketch" (also about cannibalism) and some graphically cannibalistic animation from Terry Gilliam. Nevertheless, it was this sketch which was most notorious for its tastelessness, and Cleese made specific reference to it alone in his eulogy for Chapman, when recalling Chapman's talent for pushing the boundaries of bad taste.[1]

Miscellany[edit]

This sketch should not be confused with the "Undertakers film" from episode 11 of series 1. The Undertakers film showed, in several snippets throughout the episode, a team of increasingly fatigued undertakers struggling to carry a coffin through the streets.

References[edit]